AAt 92, Edward Sorel is the grand old man of New York magazines. For 60 years, his searing cartoons have lit up the pages of Harper’s, The Atlantic, Esquire, Time, Rolling Stone and The Nation. He is especially revered for his work in Clay Felker’s New York in the late ’60s and for his work in The New Yorker under Tina Brown and David Remnick.
He also worked for less august titles, such as Penthouse, Screw and Ramparts.
He is one of the founders of New York. Like Leonard Bernstein or EB White, Sorel absorbs the rhythms of the exuberant city, using them to create an exaggerated and seductive mirror of all that he has experienced.
A very abbreviated list of his memories includes the Great Depression, Hitler and Mussolini, the Red Scare, Joe McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, the two Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump.
His dissertation begins with a political framework. Like the unreconstructed southpaw he is – he voted for Ralph Nader twice – he announces that he will show how the crimes of the 12 previous presidents made Donald Trump’s catastrophe possible.
It gives the CIA and the military-industrial complex all the shame they deserve for an endless parade of coups and wars – from Iran, Guatemala and Chile to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But he promises that “these presentations will be brief”, so “it will only hurt a few minutes”. On this, he keeps his word.
What gives Profusely Illustrated its charm and power — in addition to 177 spectacular illustrations — are Sorel’s New York tales, beginning with a childhood spent in a fifth-floor walk-up building in the Bronx with a father he despised and a mother he adored.
Sorel spares no one, especially his “stupid, insensitive, grumpy, petty, faulty, racist” father, whom he dreamed of pushing in front of a subway train when he was only eight or nine years old.
“When I grew up, I realized how wrong that would have been,” writes Sorel.
“The biker would have seen me.”
The first riddle that tormented him was why his amazing mother married his rebellious father. She explained that a few months after arriving in New York from Romania, at age 16, she started working in a factory that made women’s hats. When one of the hat blockers noticed on the first day that she hadn’t left for lunch, he lent her the nickel she needed. Later, the same blocker told her he would kill himself if she didn’t marry him. So that was it.
During a prolonged childhood illness that confined him to his bed, Ed began making drawings on cardboard that came back with shirts from a Chinese laundry. When he returned to school, the drawings were admired by his teacher at PS90, who told his mother that young Ed had talent. She enrolled him in an art class on Saturdays at the other end of town, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then another at the Little Red School House, in lower Manhattan.
At Little Red, thanks to the generosity of a certain Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, all the pupils received a wooden box containing oil paints, brushes, turpentine and an enamel palette.
It was Ed’s “Keep So I Can Paint at Home” – and it changed his life.
He was admitted to the highly competitive High School of Music and Art and then to Cooper Union’s tuition-free art school. But his teachers only delayed his success: the fashion for abstraction was so intense that he was not allowed to do the realistic work he loved.
The boy from the Bronx who had been Eddie Schwartz was transformed after discovering Julien Sorel, hero of Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black. Julien was “a sensitive young peasant who hated his father, was appalled by the corruption of the clergy in 19th-century France, and was catnip to every woman he met”.
Five years later, Eddie changed his name to Sorel.
With Seymour Chast, he founded Push Pin Studios, which after the arrival of Milton Glaser became New York’s hottest design studio. Sorel didn’t last long, but when Glaser founded the New York magazine with Felker a few years later, Sorel got the perfect outlet for his increasingly powerful cartoons.
His book delights include interactions with all of the most important magazine publishers of the second half of the last century, including George Lois, art director of Esquire in its heyday under Harold Hayes.
Gay Talese had written what would become a very famous profile, Frank Sinatra has a cold. The crooner had refused to pose for the cover, after Lois told him he wanted a close-up with a cigarette in his mouth and a group of sycophants eagerly trying to light it.
Lois asked Sorel for an illustration. It was a mission that would give him “more visibility than I had ever had before”. He panicked and his first effort was a failure. But with only one night left, his “adrenaline kind of made my hand look like a beautiful Frank Sinatra drawing.” This launched Sorel’s career. The original is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Village Voice, New York’s premier counterculture newspaper, offered him a weekly spot. Sorel inked a memorable portrayal of New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal as a tank-shooting overly liberal columnist, Sydney Schanberg, after Schanberg was fired for attacking the news department from the op-ed page.
Tina Brown chose Sorel to do her first cover of The New Yorker. When Woody Allen and Mia Farrow parted ways, Sorel came up with a Woody & Mia Analysts Convention.
If you’re looking for an overview of the glory days of magazine journalism, illustrated with cartoons that will make you nostalgic for the great battles of yesteryear, Profusely Illustrated is perfect. When you’re done, you’ll be ready to watch Mad Men again.